The Butler (2013) PG-13

The Butler did it.  He managed to steal your heart with a tale of a humble domestic servant who worked for all the presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan.  This inspiring film is based on a true story.  The only problem is that none of the stuff about his sons being involved in the Civil Rights Movement or dying in Vietnam is true.  The real butler, Eugene Allen, only had one son and he did not die in Vietnam or join the Black Panthers.  None of the actors look like the presidents they portray.  They are all much shorter than the men they are supposed to represent.  Robin Williams has too much hair and is too chubby to look like Ike, Kennedy’s hair is not red enough, the actual LBJ towered over everyone and had very broad shoulders, the only thing John Cusack had in common with the on screen Nixon was a slightly exaggerated nose, Reagan’s accent was all wrong, and the list goes on.  There are some minor anachronisms in the movie such as the concrete barrier around the White House, which did not exist at the time, incorrect phones, dishes, door openers, and songs that don’t fit the correct years.  More significantly, President Nixon asks blacks to vote for him when they did not yet have the right to vote in 1960 in Washington D.C.

Presidents Ford and Carter are not portrayed at all.  Perhaps this is an example of creative forgetting that is sometimes done in popular history.  On a particularly ironic note, Jane Fonda portrays Nancy Reagan, a woman the radical Viet Cong sympathizer surely despised in real life.  In fact, this is the first Hollywood movie I have seen that gives Reagan a mostly favorable treatment.  Perhaps the most widely criticized aspect of the film is its blatant endorsement of Barack Obama near the end of the movie.

Some historical lessons can be learned from watching the film, however.  These aspects have been overlooked in most other treatments of the subject.  Freedom Riders often risked their lives and had to go through intense training to not resist when they were being beaten, fire-hosed, tear-gassed, etc.  Another misconception that students today often have is that Martin Luther King was the only Civil Rights Leader and that all he had to do was make the “I Have Dream” speech and everything got better.  The film does a good job of depicting other civil rights leaders and the many dedicated, but otherwise unknown, ordinary people who risked their lives to bring about much needed change.  The film has a fair amount of violence in it and it discusses, but does not show sexual activities, including infidelity. There are some course jokes and harsh language from time to time, but nothing that doesn’t add to the story.  Overall, I would say that the movie is worth showing to students with the caveat that they should be warned about its inaccuracies.

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